By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
Recent weeks have brought devastating news for many of the shelters coping with a surge of homelessness in cities across the country: The federal funding they have relied on to house, feed, and care for some of the very neediest Americans is going away.
In New York City, well-established and respected shelter operators such as the Bowery Residents Committee, the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, and the Doe Fund are seeing their grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) slashed or zeroed out.
The same is happening to Camillus House in Miami, Florida; to Vincent Village in Fort Wayne, Indiana; to the Center for Women and Families in Louisville, Kentucky, and to the Institute for Human Services in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“This means that, come June, some 700 people who were receiving services to get off the streets will be sent back to the streets. Can you imagine that?” Ron Book of the Dade County Housing Trust told the Miami Herald. The Trust had applied for federal funding for 20 organizations; it won grants for only three.
What could explain HUD’s actions?
It’s not that the problem of homelessness has gone away. To the contrary, it’s worse than ever in some places—with tent cities springing up in places like Los Angeles and Seattle, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, declaring a state of emergency, and New York City’s shelter population hovers near an all-time high.
Nor is there a sudden cash crisis in Washington. The grants were awarded through HUD’s $2.3 billion Continuum of Care program, which actually got a 5 percent boost in 2016.
No, what changed was the minds of HUD policymakers. They have become believers in the philosophy know as “Housing First,” which holds that moving people into permanent, independent housing as quickly as possible is the best solution for homelessness. So they’re dramatically ramping up funding for programs that follow that approach, and cutting support for traditional shelters.
“The government is now just giving vouchers out, which puts people in homes and the government pays their rent,” Denise Andorfer of the Vincent Villages told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. “But the behavior doesn’t change and most end up homeless again.”
“While transitional housing programs play an important temporary role for people experiencing homelessness, permanent supportive housing has demonstrably better outcomes at a lower cost,” HUD spokesman Charles McNally told Politico New York.
But prioritizing what he called “evidence-based interventions like permanent supportive housing,” this year’s grants “should help New York serve more people experiencing homelessness, and with better results,” McNally said.
He acknowledged that shifting priorities could put some shelters out of business. “McNally said HUD would provide guidance to projects that weren’t funded, to help them wind down and determine how to move their clients from transitional housing into permanent housing,” Politico reported.
The apparent basis for calling the money shift “evidence-based” is HUD’s Family Options Study. Following more than 2,000 families in 12 communities over three years, it has been described as the largest-ever research project comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to homelessness. An interim report based on the first 20 months’ experience was published in July 2015.
But the study is only half-finished. And its complex methodology—which focused on what programs families were offered, as opposed to what they actually used—makes its findings difficult to interpret. Certainly they do not come close justifying HUD’s robbing-Peter-to-pay Paul policy.
The solution that came out looking best based on the study’s preliminary—repeat, preliminary—results was permanently subsidized housing, i.e., an open-ended commitment that government will pay a portion of families’ rent. Of course, that approach gets steadily costlier over time, meaning the cost-benefit analysis at 20 months could look very different at 36 months or 10 years.
Nor is a large-scale expansion of permanent housing subsidies realistically on the table. Federal funding for public housing and Section 8 vouchers has been effectively flat for years. The Housing First programs to which HUD is giving grants provide temporary rent support, typically for two years or less. The Family Options Study’s interim report determined that temporary rent subsidies failed to significantly improve the lives of families who were offered them. They appeared less expensive than some alternatives, but the savings diminished over time as families lost their apartments and slipped back into homelessness.
Here’s more evidence HUD should be considering: Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City experimented with an aggressive housing-first approach from 2005 to 2011, using rent subsidies to move 33,000 people out of shelters.
But two things happened: families who were not equipped to maintain a stable housing situation began to bounce back into shelter (the return to shelter rate climbed to 60%) and instead of going down, the city’s shelter census actually increased. Officials found that families who had been living doubled up with relatives or in substandard apartments saw what they believed was an opportunity to improve their housing, and entered the shelter system to secure their place in line.
If the Housing First approach had that effect in New York, could HUD’s increasing emphasis on the policy in recent years help explain the current surge in shelter populations across the U.S.?
HUD needs to remember that one size does not fit all. A rent voucher might well be the best solution for an otherwise self-supporting family that has suffered a temporary setback, such as an illness or lost job. But what drives most families into shelters are deeper-seated issues, such as a lack of education and employment skills, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
A rent voucher by itself will not make those issues go away. Some families need the support, education, therapy, training, and safety that only transitional shelters can provide. Yet thanks to HUD’s policy, many of those safety-net organizations must now scramble for alternative funding or contemplate the unthinkable.
When will we understand that there never was—or ever will be—one simple path to ending homelessness? Its causes remain multifaceted, requiring a combination of permanent housing, transitional housing, and emergency shelters with requisite services to fight that battle.
Miami’s Camillus House stands as an example of a torn safety net. As reported recently in the Miami Herald “Shed Boren, Camillus’ executive director, is stunned. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do to find the money to make up for this loss’ he told the paper’s editorial board.
“Camillus alone will lose 75 percent of funding for its Day Center, that represents $346,000 of the center’s $461,000 annual budget. The center is an oasis for those without a roof over their heads, a place where they can shower, find counseling and a mail center, in addition to finding a meal — more than 300 are served each day. The loss of HUD money, Mr. Book said, will derail the county’s master plan to do away with homelessness by December 2017. ‘I don’t think HUD realizes how impactful this cut will be for Miami-Dade,’ he said.”
With examples such as this it is fair to say that HUD—in the name of housing the homeless—has paradoxically adopted a policy that could stimulate homelessness. By withdrawing the very funding that supports this nation’s homeless safety net, HUD is leading the nation down a perilous path.